Being human: fear of death and the afterlife by Fr Ron Rolheiser
Unless you are already a full saint or a mystic, you will always live in some fear of death and the afterlife. That’s simply part of being human. But we can, and must, move beyond our fear of God.
As a child, I lived with a lot of fear. I had a very active imagination and too-frequently imagined murderers under my bed, poisonous snakes slithering up my leg, deadly germs in my food, playground bullies looking for a victim, a hundred ways in which I could meet an accidental death, and threats of every kind lurking in the dark. As a child, I was often afraid: afraid of the dark, afraid of death, afraid of the afterlife, and afraid of God.
As I matured, so too did my imagination; it no longer pictured snakes hiding everywhere or murderers under my bed. I began to feel strong, in control, imagining the unknown, with its dark corners, more as opportunity for growth than as threat to life. But it was one thing to block out fear of snakes, murderers, and the dark. Not so easily did I overcome my fear of death, fear of the afterlife, and fear of God. These fears are the last demons to be exorcised, and that exorcism is never final, never completely done with. Jesus, himself, trembled in fear before death, before the unknown that faces us in death. But he didn’t tremble in fear before God, the opposite in fact. As he faced death and the unknown, he was able give himself over to God, in childlike trust, like a child clinging to a loving parent, and that gave him the strength and courage to undergo an anonymous, lonely, and misunderstood death with dignity, grace, and forgiveness.
We need never be afraid of God. God can be trusted. But trust in God does include a healthy fear of God because one particular fear is part of the anatomy of love itself. Scripture says: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. But that fear, healthy fear, must be understood as a reverence, a loving awe, a love that fears disappointing. Healthy fear is love’s fear, a fear of betraying, of not being faithful to what love asks of us in return for its gratuity. We aren’t afraid of someone we trust, fearing that he or she will suddenly turn arbitrary, unfair, cruel, incomprehensible, vicious, unloving. Rather we are afraid about our own being worthy of the trust that’s given us, not least from God.
But we must trust that God understands our humanity: God doesn’t demand that we give him our conscious attention all of the time. God accepts the natural wanderings of our hearts. God accepts our tiredness and fatigue. God accepts our need for distraction and escape. God accepts that we usually find it easier to immerse ourselves in entertainment than to pray. And God even accepts our resistances to him and our need to assert, with pride, our own independence. Like a loving mother embracing a child that’s kicking and screaming but needs to be picked up and held, God can handle our anger, self-pity, and resistance. God understands our humanity, but we struggle to understand what it means to be human before God.
For many years, I feared that I was too immersed in the things of this world to consider myself a spiritual person, always fearing that God wanted more from me. I felt that I should be spending more time in prayer, but, too often, I’d end up too tired to pray, more interested in watching a sports event on television or more interested in sitting around with family, colleagues, or friends, talking about everything except spiritual things. For years, I feared that God wanted me to be more explicitly spiritual. He probably did! But, as I’ve aged, I’ve come to realize that being with God in prayer and being with God in heart is like being with a trusted friend. In an easeful friendship, friends don’t spend most of their time talking about their mutual friendship. Rather they talk about everything: local gossip, the weather, their work, their children, their headaches, their heartaches, their tiredness, what they saw on television the night before, their favorite sports teams, what’s happening in politics, and the jokes they’ve heard recently – though they occasionally lament that they should ideally be talking more about deeper things. Should they?
John of the Cross teaches that, in any longer-term friendship, eventually the important things begin to happen under the surface, and surface conversation becomes secondary. Togetherness, ease with each other, comfort, and the sense of being at home, is what we give each other then.
That’s also true for our relationship with God. God made us to be human and God wants us, with all of our wandering weaknesses, to be in his presence, with ease, with comfort, and with the feeling that we are at home. Our fear of God can be reverence or timidity; the former is healthy, the latter is neurotic.